Thursday, August 13, 2015

Grand Piano (2013)

You don’t see too many well-crafted thrillers these days. The last one I really enjoyed was Brian DePalma’s Passion. But I think I found one that may be even better. It is certainly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock with its visual style and characters. You may detect a little bit of The Man Who Knew Too Much in there. But don’t worry; this isn’t a remake, but a loving homage to the classic thrill ride.

Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a renowned piano player, one of the best in the world. But after a performance where he froze up playing one of the most complicated pieces of music ever written, he has shunned the spotlight. His wife, Emma (Kerry Bishe) uses her pull as a famous actress to set up a performance for him in Chicago to act as a comeback after his years away from the stage.

Tension begins to build on the night of the performance as Tom is facing his inner demons. But once the performance starts, it gets a whole lot worse. Written on the score he is performing he finds the words “Play one wrong note and you die” written in red. And then next to these words, he sees the telltale dot of a laser scope from a sniper rifle. As the night progresses Tom receives an earpiece and hears a calm voice (John Cusack) telling him that any attempt to get help will cause Emma to be shot, and any failure to play the piece that defeated him all those years ago will end with his death. Tom is trapped… or is he? Will he be able to save his wife and find out the secret of the Grand Piano?

Good Points:
Excellent performance by Elijah Wood, who carries the film
Wonderful musical score by Victor Reyes
A well crafted thriller that keeps things brisk and exciting

Bad Points:
Stretches a few implausible moments to keep the thrills coming
If you don’t like classical music, than the score may annoy you
Some may find the overt Hitchcock style to be too much


Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review

Tom thought he was just facing himself tonight.
Many times as a film score fan you find yourself watching a poor movie because you like the score and want to see how it works (or doesn’t) for the film. But every once in a while you hear the great buzz on a film score, and then watch the film and are blown away by what you saw. Grand Piano fit that later experience for me. I knew a little bit about the film, hearing it was a thriller, and that Elijah Wood was in it. But the film score fans were mostly talking about the gorgeous score, featuring wonderfully complex piano solos and some powerful orchestral cues. For many it was one of the best film scores of 2013.

And yes, the music is really great. If you like classical piano pieces, there is a doozy that occurs near the end of the film. But most of the music is full orchestra featuring solo moments on the piano. But the genius of the score is that Victor Reyes composes pieces that not only work in context of the story – they sound like actual concert hall pieces. But these cues also work as underscore to the tension, action and thrills that occur during the film. It is a remarkable bit of film scoring, and one that is made even more impressive once you’ve seen the film.

But for anyone who just wants to see a good thriller Grand Piano delivers. Director Eugenio Mira has obviously studied the work of Alfred Hitchcock and the script by Damien Chazelle fits the mold as well. Tom Selznick is the perfect flawed hero. He’s dealing with his personal failure, the fact that his wife is more famous than him, and the fact that he feels that he let down his mentor and teacher by never being able to play that complex piece. In many ways he reminds me of the protagonist from Rear Window.

Emma tries to figure out if Tom is acting strangely
because of nerves, or if something else is going on.
Emma is very much the Hitchcock blonde, tall and cool looking. She is supportive and unflappable. She obviously cares about her husband very much, but also knows what she needs to do to kick his butt in gear to perform again. The first fifteen minutes of the film do a great job establishing Tom and Emma for the audience, as well as build tension as Tom travels from the airport to the concert hall and prepares for the performance.

In fact Mira directs these sequence with enough tension building that really he could sustain this as a straight up character drama. But once Tom turns the page of his score and sees the red writing telling him to play or die, things get really interesting. Mira builds the rest of the film in a very controlled but fluid manner. We learn piece by piece what the voice wants, and what he is willing to do to get it. We discover that he isn’t alone in his plot, and Tom and the viewer aren’t sure whom they can trust.

Grand Piano also manages to capture some of that great pitch black humor that Hitchcock used so well. You’ll find yourself chuckling at times even when a character makes a bloody exit. And while these deaths deliver some humor, they also raise the stakes. These villains are willing to kill innocents. But what are they after? Why does it matter that Tom play the impossible piece perfectly? You’ll need to see the movie to discover the solution to that riddle.

Like a classic Hitchcock protagonist, Tom is alone in the
plot, and not sure who he can trust.
But honestly, you will be entertained. The acting is really well done; with Wood pretty much front and center for the entire film. He does a great job with the early scenes as he deals with the pressures of the performance. But he also does a good job as the film progresses and he does his best to not only continue the concert but also try to stop the dastardly plot. While John Cusack provides plenty of voice work, he isn’t on screen very long. But he manages to put a lot of menace and bitterness in his voice, providing a vivid character and foil to Wood’s performance. I’ve also got to give a shout out to Alex Winter (of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure fame) in an important role that he pulls off really well.

Grand Piano has some excellent visual style to it. Again, you’ll be reminded of some of the clever camera work from Hitchcock and DePalma. But that isn’t a bad thing. We don’t see this kind of framing, camera movement and staging very often any more. Sound effects work fine in the film, but the music is what carries the day. I’ve already written enough about that though.

In the end, Grand Piano is one of the most entertaining modern thrillers I’ve seen in a while. It kept me riveted throughout the film, and the whole package was really impressive. If you’re looking for a good thriller this weekend, I heartily recommend it.


  1. While I fundamentally applaud the modern abundance of choice in entertainment, there is nothing without a downside. The limited choice on TV and radio when I was growing up meant that I was exposed to movies I otherwise would not have watched (classic movies dominated late night fare) and to music I otherwise would not have heard. Some of it proved to be rewarding stuff. Nowadays it is so very easy to dismiss something as “not my preferred genre” and pick something else instead that we often miss the gems amid the overlooked ordinary …well, to stick with the analogy, rocks. This flick would be one I’d be unlikely to watch without someone’s recommendation, but now I have one.

    Movies about classical musicians are surprisingly hard to pull off well, but a few have managed. “Humoresque” (1946) comes to mind, though it is more melodrama and less thriller. I suppose a credible death threat would be a motivator.

    1. I hear ya. A lot of these smaller films I only end up watching because of recommendations by folks at the film score forums, or my sister recommending, and of course my fellow bloggers. :)

      Give this one a try, I think you'll enjoy it.

      And yeah, the classical music world often comes across as too stodgy for mainstream entertainment. A concert may appear in a scene or two, but it is rare you get a whole film about it. There are the historical dramas like "Immortal Beloved" about Beethoven and of course "Amadeus". But even those seem to have fallen out of favor.

  2. As I read about the premise of this film and it slightly reminded me of Speed. I'll have to give Grand Piano a watch. Another pretty good movie on classical music is The Competition with Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving. I enjoyed it, but it has age a little bit, and others might think it too melodramatic. Dreyfuss also starred in Mr. Holland's Opus with a soundtrack by Michael Kamen, which may be the better film for most people, though I enjoyed them both.

    As far as Hitchcock, the last movie I saw that was in that style, was Match Point by Woody Allen.

    1. Oh yeah, Mr. Holland's Opus was a pretty good movie. I'd forgotten all about it. I've never seen "The Competition", might need to check that one out.